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28 January 2019

Why the UK cannot see that Brexit is utterly, utterly stupid

The British press helped condone austerity. It's now blinding us to the stupidity of Brexit. 

By Simon Wren-Lewis

If you talk to almost anyone overseas, except those at the right-wing extreme (like Trump) or part of a tiny minority of the left, their reaction to Brexit is similar that of the former prime minister of Finland. What the UK is doing is utterly, utterly stupid. An act of self harm with no point, no upside. Sometimes outside opinion is based on incomplete or biased information and should be discounted, but on Brexit it is spot on. So why are so many people in the UK unable to see what outsiders can see quite clearly?

The days when Leavers talked about the sunlit uplands are over. Liam Fox has not even managed to replicate the scores of trade deals the UK will lose when we leave the EU. As for independence, Leavers cannot name any laws imposed on the UK by the EU that they do not like. Since the referendum, even public attitudes to immigration have become much more favourable.

Instead there has emerged one justification for reducing real wages, for allowing our economy to lose over 2 per cent of its GDP, to allow firms to make and enact plans to leave the UK: the 2016 referendum. People voted for it, so it has to be done. It is described as the “will of the people”. Yet few bother to note that almost half the people voted the other way, with those that would be most affected not even having a vote ­– and that this victory was won by illegal means. All of that is brushed aside.

But what is really remarkable is the way that what this vote was originally for has gradually mutated over time. Just before the vote, the Leave campaign talked of many ways of leaving, with Norway (which is in the EEA) as one option. They did this for a simple reason: every time Leavers came up with a feasible way of leaving, other Leavers didn’t like it. Yet within little more than a year Leavers were declaring that the vote was obviously to leave both the Customs Union and Single Market. During the referendum campaign the Leave side talked about the great deal they would get from the EU, but within two years, many of the same people were seriously pretending that voters really wanted no deal. A vote for the “easiest” deal in history has become a vote for no deal at all, apparently.

In much the same way, as Alex Andreou notes, what was once described as Project Fear transforms in time into “the people knew they were voting for that”. Claims there will be no short-term hit to living standards made before the referendum have now become “people knew there would be a short-term cost” – remember Rees-Mogg told us that short-term means 50 years.

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Meanwhile, warnings from important UK businesses become an excuse to talk about WWII, yet again. What people from outside the UK can see that too many inside cannot is how the case for Leaving has become little more than xenophobia and nationalism. What people overseas can also see but we seem unable to is that there is a world of difference between a vote to Leave the EU in an unspecified way and a real, practical plan. Which means that the first referendum, particularly as it was narrowly won, needs to be followed by a second referendum over an actual, realistic way of leaving. In other words, a “people’s vote”. When Jonathan Freedland says “the notion that a 52 per cent vote for a hypothetical, pain-free Brexit translates into an unbreakable mandate for an actually existing Brexit is shaky at best”, he is wrong: the notion is simply incorrect.

Some of the arguments against this are so dumb, yet are allowed to pass as serious. “Oh, well, why not just have a best of three”: because there is no reason for a third referendum. That having a second referendum means that “politicians have failed the people”: most politicians voted to Remain because they knew that any realistic way of leaving would be bad for people. They have been proved right and a majority of the electorate might well agree. “The first referendum was an unconditional vote to leave”: of course, it could never be. Suppose we found out that everyone would lose half their income under any specific way of leaving – would you still argue that in 2016 voters voted for that? 

But by far the worst excuse not to hold a people’s vote is that a second referendum would be undemocratic. Orwell must be turning in his grave when he hears politicians say in all seriousness that a second referendum would undermine faith in democracy. This is the language of dictators and fascists, but few seem to mind. Given the difference between the final deal and the promises of the Leave campaign the case for a second referendum is overwhelming, but you would not know that from the UK public debate. There is only one way to make sense of the “people’s vote = undemocratic” equation, or the “will of the people”, and that is that the first referendum effectively disenfranchised Remain voters.

That is exactly what happened after the 2016 vote. Those wanting to Remain to all intents and purposes ceased to exist. If we are just talking about Leave voters, then of course most will be disappointed by a second vote. Is this why Labour MPs just worry about Leave voters in their constituencies, because Remain voters no longer matter? It is why we get endless vox pops from Leave constituencies, and no mention from EU citizens who have lived here for years who are worried sick because the computer might say you have to leave?

How did Remain voters become effectively disenfranchised? Why is the lunacy of what this country is doing only apparent to foreigners? Answering this question is not hard for anyone who has read my book The Lies We Were Told. What we have that foreigners do not is a public discourse shaped by a handful of newspaper proprietors who just happen to be intensely hostile to the EU. Partly through intimidation by that same press and their political allies, the BBC follows this discourse. This is where the “will of the people” came from. It was this press that puts rebel Conservative MPs on their front pages, and that uses language like saboteurs and traitors. It is intimidating MPs in order to influence the democratic process, but of course few in the media call it that. 

As I discuss in my book, I have seen this before in a milder form at least twice in recent times. In the first the UK convinced itself that austerity was the only way forward, despite most academic economists saying otherwise. It was the media that promoted claims that governments were just like households, even though first year economics students are taught why this is not true. And then it was the media that pushed (or left unchallenged) the idea that austerity was the result of Labour profligacy: it was a straight lie but it played a critical part in the 2015 election.

If people have doubts about my argument that the media played a central role is misdirecting the public then (and many do), well Brexit should be a test case. And so far Brexit has gone exactly as these newspaper proprietors would have wished. Three coincidences is a row? The reason why those overseas can see that Brexit is utterly, utterly stupid while the UK stockpiles food and medicine, and the Prime Minister tries to blackmail MPs into supporting her deal, is because those overseas are not influenced by the UK media.

As this one seems very popular, it is worth spelling out why it is rubbish. The 2016 referendum was not some kind of contract, where all those voting to leave committed to support any vote to leave for all time. It is highly likely that some people voted for a particular kind of Brexit and would prefer Remain to other types of Brexit, which is crucial given the narrow victory. (Which is also why claims that Remain cannot be on any second referendum ballot are nonsense.) Some may have voted Leave to give more money to the NHS and to stop Turkish immigrants, in which case they may have changed their minds. It does not say “we should leave whatever the form of leave at whatever cost” on the ballot or the small print, because there is no small print. 

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